VIDEO: Highlights from games played Jan. 5
NEWS OF THE MORNING
No. 1: Dragic questions loyalty of Suns’ front office — Goran Dragic has been in the NBA for eight seasons and spent roughly half of that time as a member of the Phoenix Suns. Although he’s currently on the Miami Heat and spearheading the attack of one of the best teams in the Eastern Conference, he can look back at his most recent stint in Arizona (2012-15) and see how Phoenix has gone from potential upstart team to one of the league’s worst squads. In an interview with Yahoo Sports’ Michael Lee, Dragic claims that the Suns were too willing to tinker with a core that seemed primed for success:
Dragic is too concerned with his own adjustments in helping Miami regain a spot among the Eastern Conference elite to be overly consumed with the situation in Phoenix. But he has his own theory for why a franchise that seemed so promising is suddenly foundering, based on his own experience with the Suns.
“It feels like they’re always changing something,” Dragic told Yahoo Sports. “They’re not like Miami, San Antonio, those teams that are really loyal when they find something.”
Dragic still has fond memories of his time in Phoenix – six seasons spread out over two stints – and is especially grateful for the opportunity the Suns provided after he chose to return for his second run with the team. They put the ball in his hands and allowed him to use his jet-ski speed and creative improvisations to earn third-team All-NBA honors during a surprising 48-win season in 2013-14 that now looks more like a mirage with the passing of time.
While claiming “no regrets” about his Suns tenure, Dragic remains disappointed by the ending, which he claims was the result of too much tinkering – primarily at point guard, a position the 6-foot-3 Slovenian had already proven he could handle. Dragic made it work after the team traded for point guard Eric Bledsoe in July 2013 and helped the Suns emerge as that overachieving darling. But Dragic was pushed away further from the ball – and inevitably, the team – the following season, when the Suns added another ball-dominant guard, Isaiah Thomas, in July.
“Me and Bledsoe, we built really great chemistry together, we played well and the whole team did. Everybody expected that we’re going to get some big guys that we thought we needed, but they did another move, they bring in a point guard and it was tough,” Dragic told Yahoo. “I was a little bit frustrated. It was tough, especially for me, because I was playing off the ball all the time, and I was guarding [small forwards]. That was tough for me, but they did what they did.”
The Suns don’t have the NBA’s worst record this season, but they have arguably been the worst team in the league over the past two weeks. Phoenix has lost nine straight games, including a home defeat to Philadelphia and an embarrassing road loss to the Kobe-less Los Angeles Lakers. During the free fall, Markieff Morris was suspended two games for throwing a towel at coach Jeff Hornacek; two of Hornacek’s top assistants were dismissed; and Bledsoe – the team’s best player – sustained a season-ending knee injury.
And on Friday, amid all of that turmoil, the Suns will welcome back Dragic, who noticed the fissures in the structure and got out before the unseemly collapse.
“I always believe when you find some pieces that you leave those pieces [alone]. But then you upgrade the other positions. Like San Antonio is doing. They always have the Big Three, but then it’s a good team. They always find another player at another position, so they’re always good. But that’s not my call,” Dragic told Yahoo, with an uncomfortable chuckle. “I was just there to play basketball. I tried to do my job.”
The Suns used dealing Dragic as a chance to again remake the roster as they got rid of Thomas and used a valuable trade chip – a top-three-protected pick from the Los Angeles Lakers – to acquire Brandon Knight at the deadline. They later split up the Morris twins, dealing Marcus to Detroit to clear cap space in a failed attempt to land LaMarcus Aldridge in free agency. And the addition of Tyson Chandler has not yielded much. Dragic is sympathetic to the plight of his former teammates.
“I wish them all the best,” Dragic told Yahoo. “I already went through the season with only  wins … and it’s not pretty. Most of the guys, we’re really competitive and you want to win a lot of games. And when you get to that mix where you don’t win [in] like 10 games in a row, that’s really tough. That’s really tough. Everything is worse. In your personal life. Everything. I always say I’m hurting sometimes, have a lot of injuries. But if you win a game, I feel great. But if you lose the game, those injuries, they come up. I don’t know how to explain it, winning is such a unique thing.”
Dragic sought that “unique thing” in Miami, where Pat Riley has built a franchise that has been stable and consistently good over the past two decades, with only four non-playoff seasons during his reign with the organization.
“That’s why I didn’t hesitate to sign in free agency, because they are always on top,” Dragic told Yahoo. “They are always looking at that big picture to win a championship. I still remember that year with the Suns, when we made the [conference finals in 2010]. That was one of the best moments in my career and I want to feel that again, to be in the playoffs and to be a contender.”
No. 2: Curry annoyed by (but not worried about) shin injury — Another day, another morning in which the Golden State Warriors emerge victorious the night before. The latest victim was the Los Angeles Lakers, who didn’t put up much of a fight as the Warriors won 109-88 in L.A. to improve to 33-2. Klay Thompson was in a zone in that game, scoring 22 first-quarter points en route to a 36-point night. Stephen Curry was solid, too (17 points, six assists, three steals) but also saw his nagging shin injury flare up in the game, too. Rusty Simmons of the San Francisco Chronicle has more on the injury and how Curry is more or less irked (but not fretting) it:
Even as the Warriors completed their 109-88 torching of the Lakers, all of the attention was on the status of the NBA Most Valuable Player, who reinjured the bruised left shin that has bothered him since Dec. 28.
“It’s a magnet, but I’ll be all right,” said Curry, who has been kicked in the same spot three times since the initial contusion. “It’s just frustrating and annoying and all of the other adjectives that you want to throw in there.
“Long term, it’s not something I’ll have to worry about. It’s just playing through an injury that’s there.”
With 7:39 remaining in the third quarter, Curry gave the Warriors a 68-55 lead with an impressive finish over 7-foot-2 Roy Hibbert. As Curry completed the move in the lane, his shin collided with Hibbert’s lower leg.
The Los Angeles crowd neared a hush and Twitter buzzed as Curry limped back toward the defensive end, tried to stomp out the pain and nearly threw his mouth guard in disgust. Interim head coach Luke Walton called a timeout, a break just long enough for Curry to get checked by the training staff and persuade his coach to leave him in the game.
“I was kind of worried, because (Curry) was snapping, but once he said it was the same thing, it was kind of a relief for everybody,” Draymond Green said before being asked how much Curry had to argue to stay in. “A lot. The whole timeout.”
Curry tried to walk, skip and hop off the pain during the next five minutes, and his usual gait eventually returned. He subbed out with 17 points and six assists at the 2:46 mark of the third quarter, headed for the locker room, and the Warriors announced that he wouldn’t return.
As long as the training staff and Curry agree that he’s cleared to play, Walton said the Warriors will keep allowing the point guard to log minutes.
“If I hear from the trainer that he should be sitting down, then I’ll take it out of (Curry’s) hands,” Walton said. “But I played with a guy like that. Kobe (Bryant) wouldn’t sit for anything, and most of the time, he was still able to play at a level that made us a better team. Occasionally, he was shooting left-handed three-pointers because he couldn’t lift his right shoulder, and Phil (Jackson) had to take him out.
“But you give players of that caliber the benefit of the doubt, unless the training staff says he shouldn’t be out there.”
VIDEO: Stephen Curry discusses his nagging shin injury
No. 3: Hoiberg, Rose soak in Butler’s latest gem — Just as he did the three seasons prior to 2015-16, Chicago Bulls shooting guard Jimmy Butler is taking his scoring average to new heights (22.1 ppg) while remaining a solid all-around player, too. However, Butler has been in quite the offensive zone his last four games, averaging 31.3 ppg while shooting 53.8 percent and 41.7 percent on 3-pointers. Don’t think that has been lost on his coach or teammates, as both sects of the Bulls had plenty to say about Butler on Tuesday night. ESPN.com’s Nick Friedell has more:
After scoring 40 of his 42 points in the second half of Sunday’s win over the Toronto Raptors, besting a franchise record previously set by Michael Jordan for points in a half, Butler followed that up by scoring 32 points and tying a career high with 10 assists in a 117-106 win over the Milwaukee Bucks on Tuesday night. After it was over, his teammates and coaches continued to rave about Butler’s recent performances.
“Jimmy had it hot. I was going to him in the beginning, he got us the lead,” Bulls point guard Derrick Rose said. “We got a great start in the beginning. He’s ballin’ right now so keep going to him until he doesn’t want the ball anymore.”
According to ESPN Stats and Information, Butler’s 74 points over his past two games are the most he has ever scored in consecutive games in his career. Over the second half of Sunday’s game and the first of half of Tuesday’s game Butler combined for 60 points and went 22-for-30 from the field. He was 3-for-5 from beyond the arc, 13-for-14 from the free throw line and had nine assists. Bulls head coach Fred Hoiberg couldn’t help but joke while discussing Butler’s play.
“I was a little disappointed with Jimmy tonight coming out of the gate and only going for 20,” Hoiberg cracked. “You know what? He’s making the right decisions out there. Just going out and playing the right way. He’s getting his teammates involved; I thought he was excellent early in the game making plays. He’s always going to go out there and give you a great effort defensively. But again, another efficient night — he scored 32 points on 21 shots, getting to the free throw line eight times and 10 assists. That’s a pretty efficient night for Jimmy.”
At 21-12, the Bulls are one of the best teams in the Eastern Conference right now, and it’s Butler’s play that has sparked them. Hoiberg believes Butler has elevated himself into rarefied air within the league’s hierarchy.
“Absolutely I think Jimmy has reached elite status in this league,” Hoiberg said after Tuesday’s shootaround. “You can see every game I think he’s getting more comfortable as far as overall, where last year he was in less ball screens, more isolation-type actions. This year he’s really added that element to his game. The ballhandling, his ability to get to the rim, using a ball screen, his 3-point shot if the defense tries to go under on him.
“And then he’s always had that elite defensive mindset as well. He’s such a complete player and it’s a testament to what he does in the offseason. He just continues to add new elements to his game. He was in here at 8 o’clock this morning getting shots up. And he’s never satisfied, and I think that’s the true sign of a superstar when you continue to work when you have success.”
Rose agreed with his coach’s assessment on Butler.
“The way he’s playing, the patience he’s playing with,” Rose said. “You can just tell the game is slowing down for him, especially when he’s playing pick-and-roll. It’s fun to see, exciting. I’m happy for him, man. For a player like him to come into the league and for him to improve the way he’s improving and being on my team, it’s good. I don’t really got to do too much when I’m out there because he’s taking great shots and he’s making the right plays.”
VIDEO: Jimmy Butler discusses his big performance against the Bucks
No. 4: McCollum’s game grows by leaps and bounds — This morning, the Portland Trail Blazers are four games behind the Utah Jazz for the No. 8 spot in the Western Conference. That the Blazers are even in the playoff race is something, considering the massive roster overhaul the team underwent in the offseason. Portland has remained somewhat competitive in the West thanks in large part to the star turn guard C.J. McCollum has taken this season. Ben Dowsett of BasketballInsiders.com has more on that:
McCollum’s nightly minutes load has more than doubled, but his efficiency has risen right along with it. A 13.1 PER has leapt to 18.7, this while his percentage of team possessions used while on the floor has skyrocketed from 20 percent to nearly 27 percent. His shooting accuracy has only risen a tad on the whole, but context here is vital – he’s attempting more than triple his per-game shots compared with last season. The 18.1 field goals he’s attempting per night are ninth in the NBA, and only James Harden and Russell Westbrook have attempted more than his 651 total on the year. Most guys would see at least a temporary decrease in their efficiency after leaping from 241st in the league in total shot attempts to third overall, but McCollum isn’t most guys.
“He’s a special offensive player, man,” said teammate Gerald Henderson. “He’s taking on every game, taking on every team.”
His exploding numbers are anything but an effortless result of heavily increased volume. McCollum has elevated his game as a passer almost overnight, more than doubling the percentage of teammate baskets he assists while on the floor since last season. In fact, his per-minute assist figures have actually grown by a larger share than his per-minute point scoring.
“When you have the ball in your hands a lot, and you study film, you’re going to be able to get assists,” McCollum said. “You’ve got to be able to read the defense – it’s just about speeding up those reads and making the right pass at the right time.”
The time he’s put in with his decision-making is showing through, particularly in his pick-and-roll play. As a score-first, score-second guy in the two-man game his first couple years in the league, McCollum’s teammates weren’t benefiting enough from the gravity his shooting creates. He wasn’t finding shooters out of pick-and-roll sets often enough, and was turning the ball over too often on the occasions he did try to force passes through.
“I think I’ve proven I can be a reliable and dependable player night in and night out, a guy who can score,” McCollum said. “And now they’re starting to see I can do other things besides score.”
Passing is just one of several areas around the margins where McCollum has refined his game. He’s crashing the defensive boards with just a bit more frequency, which is vital for a team that lost both its starting big men over the offseason. His turnover percentage has remained roughly the same, but again, this is a plus for a guy with the ball in his hands so much more often every game. He’s fouling less than ever in his career to this point. His three-point shooting has remained mostly consistent, but his midrange game has taken a big leap – something McCollum told Basketball Insiders he worked hard on over the summer.
All these additions got their biggest test during a recent stretch where fellow star Damian Lillard missed his first ever NBA action. McCollum was thrust into an even bigger spotlight.
“It’s a lot different without Damian, obviously,” McCollum said. “He’s an All-Star, he’s a guy that makes the game easier for everyone, makes it easier for me. Defenses can’t load up as much, can’t put as much attention on me.”
VIDEO: C.J. McCollum is making a serious push for Most Improved Player honors
No. 5: Davis welcomes criticism from Gentry — Injuries have made a mess of the New Orleans Pelicans’ season and, likely, their hopes for another playoff run. Yet as the team finds itself further and further out of the postseason chase, that doesn’t mean their coach is taking it easy on them. Case in point? Saturday’s road win against the Dallas Mavericks, in which coach Alvin Gentry got on star Anthony Davis for coasting. Davis, for his part, didn’t like the accusation at first, but had second thoughts once he saw the film. The Times-Picayune’s John Reid has more:
During Saturday’s 105-98 victory against the Dallas Mavericks, Gentry got on Davis for coasting during the game. Davis said Gentry and veteran center, Kendrick Perkins, both got on him for not pursuing rebounds hard enough.
”That’s how you get credibility in this league as a coach,” point guard Norris Cole said. ”The top coaches are tough on everybody, including the star players. They always say, it starts at the top, coach is consistent. It doesn’t matter who you are; if he feels he needs to get on you, he will get on you.
”If you look at all the great coaches, they get on their star players befroe they get on anybody else. We respect coach and he’s consistent with what he’s trying to bring and what wants out of us.”
Davis embraces being coached hard by Gentry, saying after Tuesday’s practice that he doesn’t want a coach who plays favoritism and not get on the star player like himself.
”He gets on everybody coaches, players,” Davis said. ”He doesn’t care who it is because he wants all of us to be better. If that’s what it takes for us to be better then I’m down for it. Like I said, he got on me during Saturday’s game and I was totally fine. Perk (Kendrick Perkins) gets on me, I don’t care. I know that they have my best interests.”
When asked if he agreed with Gentry’s assessment that he was coasting during the game, Davis paused for a second before answering.
”I don’t think I was coasting,” Davis with a grin. ”I don’t know what I was doing but whatever I was doing obviously it wasn’t enough until he got on me. After the game, I was mad. I felt like they were wrong. But we watched the film and I was wrong.”
SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Everything you need to know about the NBA D-League Showcase, which begins today … Sacramento Kings coach George Karl sounds like he’s concerned about rookie Willie Cauley-Stein‘s conditioning … New York Knicks coach Derek Fisher is still a big backer of rookie Jerian Grant … Brian Scalabrine says Shaquille O’Neal was the most underrated great player ever … Detroit Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy is looking for ways to play Brandon Jennings and Reggie Jackson together